Another newspaper closed last week and more closings are on the way. Print journalism is dying faster than the dinosaurs did, and for the same reasons—the climate changed. Not the atmospheric climate, but the social climate. Ditto television, and throw in retail while you’re at it. What hasn’t changed in this new always-on, always-connected, we-want-it-when-we-want-it age?


Churches. And that is the problem. You might think churches and denominations would look around and see the disaster in broadcast television, print journalism, bricks-and-mortar retail, and figure out that this same tsunami is washing over churches, too.


David T. Olson predicts that by 2050 church attendance in the United States will be only 10 percent. I think he’s wrong. I think church attendance will drop much faster, much sooner. Currently, about 17 percent of the U.S. population attends church on any given Sunday. (Forget the old 40 percent attendance figures—pollsters have determined they were asking the wrong question to get an honest answer.)


Here are the five lessons churches must learn from newspapers, television and retail if churches are going to survive as a viable social institution:


  1. Institutions no longer make the rules. Newspapers, television and even retail stores were the only places you could get news, entertainment or goods in the old world. But in the new world there are multiple options, multiple venues, multiple times. People now are always connected and always on, and they base their schedule not on the television or store hours, but on their preference.
  2. Institutions have no more credibility than individuals. Newsday, the New York tabloid daily, has decided to start charging for some of its articles because “people ought to pay.” I predict they will fail miserably. If I can’t get my news free from Newsday, I’ll get it from 100 bloggers and citizen journalists. Churches take note: We no longer are the only voice in the room, and the scandals of churches—sexual abuse, marital infidelity, leadership failures—only weaken our moral stance further.
  3. Our lives have taken on a different rhythm. Society’s life rhythm is different now. Work is not confined to Monday through Friday, leisure activities are not reserved for Saturdays, and going to church doesn’t need to happen on Sunday (if at all). People will continue to connect, but churches need to change their rhythms, too.
  4. The “customer” owes you nothing. We sometimes think people should pay more (Newsday), come when we’re open (retail), and watch when we broadcast (television). Churches must realize that while we think people should come/attend/participate/etc., they no longer have to.
  5. We’re using the wrong metrics. For newspapers it’s no longer about how many papers are on the lawn; for television it’s no longer about how many people saw “American Idol” last night; for retail it’s no longer about how to get people in the store. We continue to measure people coming to us, when we should be measuring church going to people in service, small groups, meet-ups, projects and so on. News is now being pushed out digitally via Internet and mobile, television is now on TiVo more than live, and retail is moving to the Web. Churches cannot continue to use “church attendance” as the only, or prime, measure of viability.


Will churches change? Many will not and they will die. Some will linger on, shadows of their former glory, and others will adapt and thrive. 


Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va. He blogs at Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.

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